Piggybacking on Newspapers

Guess what’s going on in California today! (Bear with me.)

— The Getty, long the world’s richest arts institution, lost about $2 billion in the last couple years!

— In a desperate bid to raise revenues, the state started taxing beverages like Smirnoff Ice as liquor instead of beer, perhaps betting that an unwillingness to admit to drinking that crap would muffle any protests. But the California legislature failed again, because the alcohol makers just changed the formula to get around the new law.

— Conservative talk radio is waning, the Los Angeles Times reports:

Casualties include Mark Larson in San Diego, Larry Elder and John Ziegler in Los Angeles, Melanie Morgan in San Francisco, and Phil Cowen and Mark Williams in Sacramento.

Two of the biggest in the business, Roger Hedgecock in San Diego and Tom Sullivan in Sacramento, have switched to national shows, elevating President Obama above Schwarzenegger on their target lists.

Another influential Sacramento host, Eric Hogue, has lost the morning rush-hour show that served as a prime forum to gin up support for the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Now he airs just an hour a day at lunchtime on KTKZ-AM (1380).

“It’s lonely, it’s quiet, and it’s a shame,” Hogue said of California’s shrinking conservative radio world. “I think this state has lost a lot of benefit. I don’t know if we can grow it back any time soon.”

Demographics certainly aren’t on their side.

— Lakers center Andrew Bynum says he’ll be back from his knee injury in time for the NBA playoffs.

What I’ve just done is to glance at the Los Angeles Times Web site, quickly assess its most interesting stories, and regurgitate the most salient bits for you. In so doing, I haven’t broken any copyright laws, or done anything that would get me accused of plagiarism. But were I to do this everyday — on a site called California Today! or something — I’d certainly be piggybacking off reporting paid for by The Tribune Company, and my doing so would depress their business insofar as I’d attract an audience that would otherwise be forced to get information like that from the Times directly, or not at all.

This freeloader problem is pervasive in media, where newspapers do much of the reportorial work, providing fodder for broadcast news, current events magazines, talk and news radio, morning shows, late night comedians, The Daily Show, The Onion, and many others.

All of which helps explain why I disagree with Tim Lee:

During his time at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Jim DeLong was probably the most prolific advocate of the “copyright as property rights” theory. He hasn’t been as active in copyright debates the last couple of years, but he’s back with a long article about the fate of the newspaper industry. In it, he warns that unless newspapers can establish “a property rights–based monetization model, based on subscribers or control of advertising or both,” the newspaper industry will become trapped in a “‘tragedy of the commons’ situation” followed by “both individual and collective death spirals.”

What I find fascinating about this is that unlike most other industries, the newspapers don’t have a piracy problem. The recording industry’s problems are at least partly attributable to BitTorrent. But this is clearly not what’s killing the New York Times. People don’t go to peer-to-peer networks for illicit copies of today’s news. To the contrary, virtually everyone involved in the news business has followed copyright to the letter. News organizations may not like Google News, but their actions are likely fair use, and Google honors news organizations’ requests to be taken out of the index. Bloggers’ linking to and quoting from news organizations is indisputably fair use, and it’s hard to imagine news organizations—which derive revenue from advertising—want bloggers to stop linking to their stories.

DeLong asserts, without evidence, that “the Internet community seems unaware of the extent of its own dependence on the newspapers for raw material.” This is simply nonsense. I just skimmed the front page of Google News, and among the non-newspaper sources I saw were the BBC, CNN, CNet, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, Ars Technica, TheStreet.com, US News and World Report, Forbes, Chicago Public Radio, the Washington Independent, Slate, and Bloomberg. There’s no particular connection between owning a printing press and employing competent journalists. Many other kinds of organizations can and do employ journalists, with a variety of different business models.

In short, the newspaper industry is in the same death spiral as the recording industry, without the lawbreaking that’s commonly blamed for the recording industry’s troubles.

There isn’t a law against piggybacking off newspaper reporting, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a free-rider problem. Alas, the problem is just invisible enough that most people won’t realize all the useful stuff newspapers and their Web sites provide until they’re gone.